The Chinese military is weighing the regular use of unmanned aircraft to monitor the East China Sea, a move that may exacerbate tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, a Chinese document on Beijing’s use of drones showed Friday.
The document, compiled in October, suggested the need for drones operated by the People’s Liberation Army, noting that patrols of the area by Chinese ships aren’t enough to protect Chinese interests.
After Japan’s effective nationalization of the Senkakus a few years ago, Chinese planes and vessels have been surveilling the uninhabited islets with greater frequency to assert Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over them. The islets are administered by Japan but also claimed by nearby Taiwan.
A drone was detected near the Senkakus on Sept. 9, 2013, prompting the Air Self-Defense Force to scramble fighter jets.
Quoting experts on Chinese military drones, the document highlighted the importance of using the unmanned aerial vehicles to counter repeated U.S. surveillance conducted by Global Hawk drones in the East China Sea and to deal with territorial disputes involving Japan.
The document also said that Beijing has legal grounds to conduct periodic drone surveillance because it established an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in November 2013.
The Chinese military now has some 50 unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Yilong, which is seen as most suitable for missions in the East China Sea because of its 4,000-km range and ability to fly continuously for 20 hours.
The Yilong drone costs about $1 million, which is substantially cheaper than U.S. drones. It is also believed to more effective at carrying out surveillance missions than manned flights.
But the Chinese military may have to improve the drones’ safety before any mission, the document suggested.
The report also noted that the State Oceanic Administration uses nine surveillance ships and four airplanes to monitor the area around the East China Sea. The Chinese entity maintains 11 aerial observation bases and also deploys unmanned aircraft.